With the youngest of my two children about to leave the world of “early childhood education” and enter the world of elementary school, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the importance of this short phase of our education and how crucial it is. Years ago, when I was an undergraduate studying art education, we learned about how linked drawing and literacy are. The visual development required for writing and reading is so closely connected to the stages of drawing development that children typically progress through. As a mother, it has been amazing to see the giant social leaps children take between the ages of two and five. No other time of life has so much growth, development, and change in such a small period of time. I’ve watched my children at home and in the classroom go from shy, hesitant two year olds, reluctant to be separated from their parents and unsure of how to interact with their classmates, to boisterous confident children, running into the classroom and seeking out chances to play with their friends and show off their talents. Watching this change is always exciting, whether as a parent or as a teacher.
For these reasons, I cringe when I hear parents and teachers brush off early childhood education as less important than the “real school” our children will later face. Alarmingly often, I’ve heard parents and even some fellow educators make comments about how “it’s only preschool, really”, implying that the second half of childhood is when education really matters. I disagree. The early years are just as important and deserving of equal attention and respect as elementary school. Here’s why:
- Preschool sets the stage for our children’s attitudes toward school. Attending a warm, inviting preschool sends the message that school is a happy, supportive, welcoming place, and this outlook serves our children well as they transition to elementary school.
- Social interaction is King in preschool. So much social learning takes place in children between the ages two and five, and a high-quality preschool supports and guides this development. Positive social skills equal increased school success in the elementary grades, which means more time for things like literacy and math instruction and less time redirecting social conflicts that were not addressed at a younger age.
- Early literacy development abounds, and is supported, in preschool. Though I disagree that formal reading instruction should occur in preschool, early literacy support is part of everything. Squeezing play-dough, piecing together puzzle pieces, drawing, finger painting, listening to read-alouds– all of these things are building the physical skills and mental development that leads to reading success later in school.
- Children can learn gradual separation. If your child has been at home with a caregiver for their early years, whether it is a parent, grandparent, nanny, or home daycare provider, preschool offers the support for a gradual separation that may not be available in kindergarten. The lower child:teacher ratios, and the fact that the days are often shorter and include more rest periods, allow young children to adjust to being away from their caregivers and in the classroom.
- “School skills” can develop ahead of the kindergarten classroom. There are some “school skills” that we don’t always think about: eating lunch independently, knowing how to take turns, learning how to use the bathroom without help, getting dressed to play outside in the cold, etc. These skills are learned in the preschool classroom, with children entering elementary school able to take care of their own needs in a larger class with less adult support.
- Parents can see their children more objectively. Preschool allows parents to conference with teachers who see lots of children at the same developmental stage as their own child. This can give them valuable information about any developmental red-flags that may exist, allowing for faster and more effective early interventions.
- Children learn they are capable and able. I know this to be true first-hand as a mom: it can be hard to wait for your child to do things for themselves when you’re rushing to leave the house. It’s much easier to clean up spills, zip coats, and pour juice than it is to wait for your child to figure it out. In preschool, however, this is part of the learning, and children learn they can do more for themselves than they may have realized!
- Children make friends. The transition to kindergarten and beyond is so much easier with some familiar faces in the classroom. By attending a local preschool program, children will enter elementary school already knowing a few children and hopefully, with a few good friends to play with.
- New experiences abound! The preschool classroom is an exciting place. There are so many opportunities to try out things children may not always have access to at home: art projects, playground equipment, sensory materials, dress-up clothes, new books, and so much more.
- Your child’s own individual development will be supported, and he or she will flourish. It’s of course true that children can enter elementary school and still be successful without formal preschool. However, preschool provides great scaffolding and support for your young child during a period of tremendous mental and physical growth and development. A good preschool program will respond to the developmental needs of the children it serves, and in turn, those children will leave as happy, curious, excited learners, ready for the next phase of their education.